Max Morden comes as an old man to the seaside vacation home where he spent one summer fifty years ago, and relives the memories of that time, when youthful lust and misunderstanding met with tragedy. He has returned to the home, called the Cedars, following the death of his wife Anna. He spends his time in a nearby pub, or walking along the shore, he reminiscing about his childhood and the days before Anna died.
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As a child, Max was obsessed with the Graces, a wealthier family who stayed in the home for the summer. He did not know the family at first, but when he saw the mother, Connie Grace, he became infatuated with her. He made friends with her twin children, Chloe and Myles, in order to get close to her.
Max's friendship with Chloe and Myles grew complicated. Chloe was much more wild than Max is, impetuously kissing him when he least expects it. And Myles was a cipher who never spoke a word in his life.
One day toward the end of the family's stay, Max overheard a conversation between Connie and Rose, the nursemaid to the two children. Max was climbing a tree in the yard and the two did not see him. From what he could overhear, and the fact that Rose was crying, he believed that Rose was having an affair with Connie's husband. He told the twins what he had surmised. Later, Chloe and Myles drowned in the ocean while Rose and Max watched helplessly from the shore.
Max's recollection of Chloe's death is intertwined with his memories of Anna, who died after a long bout with cancer. In the present, he learns that the housekeeper at the Cedars, whom he did not recognize, is the same Rose from the past, and that she was in love with Connie, not Connie's husband.
Max walks out toward the sea, drunk, and falls, nearly killing himself when his head strikes a rock. Another houseguest at the Cedars brings him inside, and he is visited by his daughter, who insists her old father come live with her. He assents, leaving the sea and the memories it holds behind.
Best part of story, including ending:
The language and writing style of this novel are incredibly evocative, and the story itself deals with tragedy and coming of age far better than most other books about children dealing with adult experiences.
Best scene in story:
Max describes one moment near the end of Anna's life when she is in a hospital bed and turns to vomit on the floor because of her cancer and the treatment she is undergoing. What could be a gross or depressing scene is shown as a moment of tenderness, particularly the way Max holds Anna's head as she leans over the side of the bed.
Opinion about the main character:
Max is an unreliable narrator; his memories are jumbled and run headlong into each other one after the other, back and forth. Perhaps this is meant by the author to replicate the churning waves of the sea, but at times it makes the story hard to follow.